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Ellis garden is a masterpiece of skill and plantsmanship

Ellis garden is a masterpiece of skill and plantsmanship

Posted: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 8:00 pm
By: By Jimmy Williams

On our several garden tours to the British Isles it has always been a serendipitous experience while traveling deep into the hinterlands on some back road, to abruptly break into a vista leading to an outstanding garden. Well, it can happen here too.
Donna Ellis called a few weeks ago for some advice on re-doing her front garden following remodeling of the porch and other work on the house.
I had visited her garden before, but it has been some years. The Ellises live in the Van Dyke community, several hundred yards off the main road.
They have been in situ at the location for two decades, and Donna has made good use of that time.
Once exposed to passing traffic (such as it is), the acreage has been planted up with trees, including a swath of bald cypresses lining a curving drive. The placement of the trees closes any view to or from the road.
As I followed the drive amidst all those trees, I broke into the open and there was her garden, much further advanced than I remembered.
A long curving shrubbery also helps hide the garden and inside is a virtual encyclopedia of woody and herbaceous plants.
Donna is without question an adept gardener, to say the least. Why she wanted any advice from me is a mystery.
I could not count on the fingers of my two hands all the plant varieties thriving there that I have failed with time and time again.
 But to take just a couple of examples: A variegated red-twig dogwood, grown for its crimson branches in winter and green-and-white leaves in summer, was the picture of health. It was perhaps eight feet or more tall.
I have had the plant on more than one occasion, and they invariably went down to twig canker before their second birthday. Ditto her yellow-twig version of the same species nearby, hale and hearty. Several have died for me forthwith.
I could go on, but you have your own miseries. In addition to Donna’s success with those dogwoods, her extensive plant palette included a lot of things not seen every day.
Nearly everything was in good heart, and this despite years of incessant drought and no automatic irrigation. I can’t imagine how she keeps it all going.
Tucked behind a nice garden shed and potting area is a coop of chickens, from which they harvest several eggs, both brown and white, every day.
Alongside is a neat vegetable garden, mostly gone over in late October, but a bed of turnip greens was thriving. Donna had just harvested a big bowl of them.
Juicy ripe tomatoes still hung from vines that had produced all summer long, and a big asparagus bed was building strength for next year with abundant top ferns.
Then, toward a mature woodland at the back of the property, was another perennial and shrub border, long and curving.
Outstanding was a Chinese snowball viburnum (Viburnum macrocephalum) that normally flowers in May. It was loaded, again here in late October, with large orbs of white flowers.
The specific epithet macrocephalum refers to the large (”macro”) flower heads. Even in that off season they were spectacular.
Donna assured me it wasn’t unusual for the 15-foot specimen to flower in both spring and fall.
As almost always happens with all of us, there had been some too-tight planting in early years, and Donna wasn’t averse to pulling some things and starting over.
“Hope springs eternal….”
But in other cases, she wisely chose to preserve. The garden is rife with magnificent crape myrtles, some 25 feet tall or more, featuring the characteristic picturesque trunks that come with older specimens of the genus.
These she would keep, but improve with severe pruning in the form of limbing up and cleaning out superfluous growth on their interiors. And, thank the Lord, no topping or “crape murder” would be countenanced.
For this pruning artistry, she chose a young man who is accomplished in just such skills, and he and a helper went to work forthwith.
The result was a collection of sculptured trees showing off their marbled trunks as any crape myrtle should be allowed to do.
An efficacious side effect would be increased air flow underneath and, desirous to any gardener worth her compost, additional planting space underneath — space that was formerly wasted.
I am confident Donna will use that new space effectively. As a matter of fact she is already planting it up.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is the garden writer for The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Mondays at (731) 642-1162.

Published in The Messenger 11.20.12